Friday 23 August 2019

In memoriam: Richard Williams (Telegraph 19/08/19)

Richard Williams, who has died of cancer aged 86, was a legendary figure in the field of hand-drawn animation whose name will be most closely linked with two projects, one polished to a superlative degree, the other notoriously uncompleted. Taken collectively, they illustrate the rewards and risks of the many painstaking hours Williams spent hunched over the drawing board.

In the mid-1980s, the greying Williams was appointed as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Disney’s wildly ambitious hybrid of cartoon and human characters. Shepherding the popeyed lupine Roger through a combination of real and virtual locations, Williams arrived at something both multidimensional and vastly more dynamic than the flat animated landscapes of old.

The attention to detail – at all points matching Roger’s eyeline to that of Bob Hoskins’ flesh-and-blood PI – paid off spectacularly: having accumulated blockbuster box-office, the film earned Williams two Oscars at the 1989 ceremony, one (for Best Visual Effects) shared, the other an individual Special Achievement award.

Roger Rabbit’s success tempted Warner Bros. to funnel funds into The Thief and the Cobbler, an immersive folktale the animator had started working on in 1964 with an eye to creating the greatest animated film ever made.

Yet production was slow-going even by animation standards, and by 1992, with the resurgent Disney’s vaguely similar Aladdin looming, the plug was pulled on Williams’ endeavours. Existing footage was then recut and issued twice by impatient producers keen to get some return on their investment: first as The Princess and the Cobbler (1993), then – when rights reverted to Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax – as Arabian Knight (1995).

Neither cut found much of an audience, and whatever greatness lay in Williams’ original vision appeared to have been lost forever. Understandably bruised, Williams refused to watch either of the commercially available versions, reasoning: “My son… told me that if I ever want to jump off a bridge, I should take a look.”

Yet Williams’ own pencil-test workprint of Thief eventually appeared online, leading fans to assemble what became known as the Recobbled Cut, preserving those surreal, shimmering flourishes hacked from earlier variations. In recent years, Williams toured the world with this version, sharing what he’d taken from this long, troubled process.

He was born Richard Edmund Williams in Toronto on March 19, 1933, the son of Kenneth and Kathleen Williams (née Bell), an illustrator who’d once been offered a job at Disney. “She took me to see Snow White when I was five and said that I was never the same again,” Williams recalled in a 2013 interview. “Not that I was scared like all the other children who thought the creatures were real. I knew they were drawings, and that’s what fascinated me.”

A keen scribbler, he visited the Disney studios aged 14: “I was a clever little fellow, so I took my drawings and I eventually got in… I was in there for two days.” After art school, he headed to Ibiza in 1953 with the ambition of making it as a painter; soon, however, he found “the paintings were trying to move”. He relocated to London in 1955 and found work in various animation studios, including those of the emergent Bob Godfrey: “I worked in the basement and would do work in kind, and he would let me use the camera… [it was] a barter system.”

That Williams was deviating from the Disney norm became evident from his early shorts. The Little Island (1958), which won the Best Animated Film BAFTA, was a half-hour allegory in which three figures representing truth, beauty and goodness jostle for supremacy. Subsequent productions – The Wardrobe (1958), A Lecture on Man (1962), Love Me, Love Me, Love Me (1962) – confirmed his rising status.

Williams’ early work on Thief was funded by a new revenue stream: providing title sequences and animated inserts on big-budget features. As London swung, he contributed graphics to What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Casino Royale (1967) and, most prominently, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), where he rendered warring national forces in satirical penstrokes. His opening credits for The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), rendering the misadventures of a flamingo-coloured cat burglar to Henry Mancini’s jazzy score, are arguably better remembered than the features themselves.

His company Richard Williams Productions, bolstered by veteran animators laid off by cost-cutting studios, enjoyed an early triumph with their 25-minute adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1971), winner of the 1972 Oscar for Best Animated Short.

Less successful was the feature-length Raggedy-Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977), which Williams took on only after original director Abe Levitow died, whereupon he underwent several draining creative clashes with studio Fox: “The lesson I learnt was the Golden Rule – whoever has the gold makes the rule.”

Yet he won an Emmy in 1982 for Ziggy’s Gift, a Christmas TV special based on a newspaper comic strip, and crafted memorable work in the commercial sector, animating Tony the Tiger and the Cresta Bear among other adworld avatars.

He won the Winsor McCay award, named after a previous animation pioneer, in 1984, and alongside his fourth wife, the producer Imogen “Mo” Sutton, received another Oscar nod in 2016 for Prologue, a mesmeric study of Spartan and Athenian warriors, based on an idea he’d had as a fifteen-year-old. (Its working title, according to the then-eightysomething Williams, was “Will I Live to Finish This?”)

By then, he’d become an avuncular elder statesman, assembling The Animators’ Survival Kit, a do-it-yourself guide published in 2001 and later reconfigured as an iPad app. Working out of Aardman’s Bristol studios, he embraced Twitter, offering real-time mentoring, while reflecting on his legacy: “If I did things again, I would be wiser, but you get wise too late. I was so interested in the work that it blinded me to what was going on. And the work is just so damn fascinating you feel as if nothing else matters."

He is survived by Sutton and six children from three previous marriages, including the animators Claire and Alex Williams, and the painter Holly Williams-Brock.

Richard Williams, born March 19, 1933, died August 16, 2019.

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